Hardware Spotlight – Neo Geo AES

The idea of consolising ones own arcade hardware wasn’t a new concept in 1990. Atari and Sega built their empires upon the back of bringing their arcade hits to the home, and they achieved a lot of success doing so. But both companies ran into issues in regards to practicality. Arcade hardware was incredibly expensive, so bringing it directly into the home would have taken the price out of the range of the average consumer. Atari and Sega knew this, so they had to compromise. The Mega Drive, for instance, may have been based on Sega’s System 16 arcade hardware, with the same Motorola X68000 processor, but it was clocked at only 7.6MHz as opposed to 10MHz, and it could only display 64 simultaneous colours and with a lower on-screen sprite limit. Necessary sacrifices to keep the console at an affordable price.

The Neo Geo was first launched in the arcades as the Neo Geo Multi-Video System (abbreviated to MVS) in early 1990. The Neo Geo was manufactured by SNK, and it revolutionised the arcade industry with its design. The popularity of arcade gaming was on the decline in the late 80s, as the golden age came to an end and the market began to stagnate. Arcade machines were becoming increasingly more expensive, especially with the onset of early 3D machines, and arcade owners were reluctant to replace older, more popular machines with new and unproven titles. SNK’s plan was to create a modular arcade system which allowed arcade owners to easily swap multiple games within the same machine and save valuable floor space. It was a similar concept to modern JAMMA machines, which allow the owner to freely swap the arcade boards held within.

Each MVS machine had the ability to hold multiple games, with the number differing depending on which MVS machine you purchased. The most popular model housed four games, although other variants released over the lifespan of the hardware held one, two and six games. Each MVS machine could be easily opened up, and the games could be readily swapped out thanks to the fact that MVS games came on large cartridges as opposed to full boards. This also made storage of games not currently in use easy for arcade owners, as the cartridges could be placed back in their cardboard box for safekeeping. With multiple games, the player had the freedom to swap between whichever games were currently installed, with the selection of games visible on the marquee of each machine.

The hardware found in the Neo Geo MVS was the most powerful dedicated 2D arcade hardware when it was launched, and none of the company’s closest rivals surpassed it until Capcom released the CPS-II in 1993. At the core of the MVS was a Motorola X68000 CPU clocked at 12.5MHz, and its GPU had a 24-bit graphics data bus. The MVS proved to be incredibly popular with arcade owners, and it was very lucrative for SNK.

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The Neo Geo MVS was released in a variety of models, each offering a different amount of game slots.

The idea to bring the Neo Geo into the home wasn’t something SNK planned from the beginning, rather the idea to do so slowly manifested itself over time. It started with SNK releasing a version of the Neo Geo for use as a rental device. These rental systems appeared in video game stores, hotels and even restaurants, and although they never left Japan they proved far more popular than SNK had anticipated. The feedback from fans was positive. The cost was the deciding factor in SNK having little interest in releasing the system at retail, but when fans started contacting the company expressing their desire to own one, regardless of the potential hit to their wallet, SNK slowly changed its mind. The feedback convinced SNK that maybe there was a place in the market for a premium, high-end console.

The subsequent result was the Neo Geo Home System, referred to by fans as the Neo Geo AES thanks to its advertisement as an “advanced entertainment system.” It had the same raw hardware specs as the MVS arcade machine, but some slight changes were made. The most important change was to the game cartridges themselves. MVS cartridges were blank plastic shells, with their only mark of identification being an end label stating the title of the game. After all, MVS cartridges were never designed to be seen, so they didn’t need to look aesthetically pleasing. AES carts were essentially the same size as their MVS counterparts, but they were given the full retail treatment. Each cart was given an artwork label and they came in plastic game cases and a manual, bringing them in line with what gamers expected from other systems.

The shape of the cartridges was also slightly altered. At the time AES cartridges were almost half the price of their MVS counterparts, so to stop arcade owners going to their local video game store and buying cheaper AES cartridges to use in their MVS machines SNK changed the cartridge shells and also changed the pin layout of the PCBs. This made AES games incompatible with the MVS and vice versa. Despite these changes, everything about the PCBs remained essentially identical between both systems, including the game ROMs. They are so identical that years later fans would create an adapter which allowed the use of MVS cartridges on the AES.

SNK decided to include an arcade joystick controller with each system as standard. The company did actually create a traditional controller, but they chose against including it because it wanted the AES to be as authentic to the arcade as possible. Having the same hardware and games wasn’t enough, arcade connoisseurs would also want true arcade controls. A memory card was also released, which would work with both the home console and the arcade system. The memory card allowed the player to take their save file with them to the arcade to carry on from where they were playing at home, and vice versa. The system was the first cartridge-based video game console to make use of a memory card.

The AES was never designed to compete with the other game consoles, it was simply created for the aficionado who wanted a premium piece of hardware. SNK thought it could tap into a niche gap in the market and find success. The fact that it was never designed to compete was also highlighted by the fact that SNK was still willing to port its games to rival systems. Many Neo Geo games saw releases on the Mega Drive, SNES, PC Engine, and even systems like the 3DO and Mega CD. These were all obviously scaled-down ports, and none of these versions was actually produced by SNK (the porting was handled mainly by Takara), but it reinforced the notion that SNK didn’t care about competing with the other companies. Later Neo Geo titles would also find their way to the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

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The Neo Geo AES is a beautiful console. Its sleek design won it much recognition.

The AES launched in Japan in 1990, alongside a launch line up including titles like Nam 1975, Magician Lord and Top Player’s Golf. The hardware won numerous awards leading up to and in the subsequent months following release, but its high retail price, coupled with the high cost of games, limited its success in those early months. Because of the nature of gaming at the time, games on ROM cartridges were expensive even on less powerful hardware. SNES and Mega Drive games were often between 8 and 32 megabits (Mb) in size, or 1 and 4 megabytes (MB), with the larger capacity cartridges commanding a higher price. Donkey Kong Country, as an example, cost £70 at a time when the average SNES title was priced at £50. Neo Geo games were between 50 and 60 megabits at launch, meaning that even the cheapest titles were more expensive than the most costly games on other systems. Many late-life Neo Geo titles surpassed 600 Mb, with the largest title coming in at 716 Mb (or 89.5 MB).

At launch in Japan, games were priced between 28,000 and 32,000 yen, or between £110 and £130 on 1990 exchange rates. While there was certainly interest in the system, the price was just too high for most, and sales never really got going. This resulted in a change of strategy from SNK.

After the release of League Bowling in December 1990, software releases for the home system halted while SNK was preparing to implement its new strategy. In July 1991, the company relaunched the system with an entirely new marketing campaign and a new pricing model. The blank, white box the system was packaged in was redesigned, the system was reduced in price by 10,000 yen, while games were dropped in price to between 13,000 and 21,000 yen. To facilitate the price drop all twelve games released for the home system at that time, as well as five new titles which were held back for the relaunch, were released in new cardboard boxes as opposed to the plastic cases which were originally used. This lowered manufacturing costs. It was a bold plan, but it ultimately proved fruitful for the company. While the Neo Geo was never a huge seller, either domestically or overseas, the relaunch renewed interest in the system in its homeland.

These seventeen games were the only titles in the whole library released in cardboard boxes, as SNK would soon return to using the original plastic cases, but by that point, the Neo Geo was selling quite respectfully domestically. Across its entire lifespan, Japan would remain the most successful region.

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Baseball Stars Professional was one of the seventeen games re-released in a cardboard box in Japan.

Although SNK didn’t see the system as a direct competitor to the PC Engine, Mega Drive or SNES, SNK America felt that a marketing blitz was necessary for the system to find success in North America. The system launched across the pacific in July 1991, accompanied by what can only be described as an aggressive, blunt and edgy advertising strategy. Taking inspiration from Sega and its successful marketing campaign for the Genesis, SNK resorted to attacking the competition. The adverts weren’t quite as catching as “Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” but some of them are fondly remembered by Neo Geo fans.

The main focus was the huge gulf in power between the Neo Geo and other consoles. While systems like the SNES could display 256 on-screen colours and the Mega Drive 64 colours, the Neo Geo could display over 4,000. It also had a CPU faster than both the Mega Drive and SNES combined and could display more on-screen sprites as well as much larger sprites. SNK didn’t shy away from letting potential customers know these details, with the motto “bigger, badder, better” being used early on. The company also branded the system as 24-bit, thanks to its GPU bus, but in reality, it was a super-powered 16-bit machine. NEC would take the same approach when it released the PC Engine in North America as the TurboGrafx-16, proclaiming it to be 16-bit when it was actually 8-bit.

Some of the adverts attracted much scrutiny. SNK America’s VP of Marketing knew that a controversial marketing campaign would get people talking. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The controversial ads revolved around the use of sexual innuendos. The most infamous of these adverts was a picture of a pair of steel balls accompanied by the text “You need a set of these,” alongside a picture of an AES with the text “To play one of these.” Another advert was a picture of a plain hot dog, with the text “If you’re still playing Sega, NEC or Nintendo you’re nothing but a weenie,” and underneath was a picture of another hot dog, this time in a bun and accompanied by onions and sauce, with the text “If you’re playing the incredibly high powered Neo Geo system you’re a real hot dog.” There was even an advert with a picture of a woman wearing lingerie, with a man playing a Neo Geo in the background, alongside the text “I remember when he couldn’t keep his hands off me!”

Did these adverts lack class? Absolutely. But they did get people talking, which is one of the key goals of any marketing strategy. Would this talking result in sales? SNK hoped it would.

At launch, the AES came in two variants. The gold edition, which included the console, two controllers, a memory card and a game, cost $650. The first run of gold edition systems included a copy of Top Player’s Golf. The silver edition, which was just the system and one controller with no additional extras, was priced at $400. When adjusted for modern inflation, the gold edition remains one of the most expensive video game systems ever released in the United States, with a value of over $1100. Much like in Japan the games were also very expensive. The retail price for most games was between $200 and $300, which made the games more expensive than some video game consoles. Unlike in Japan, the games were never released in cardboard boxes in North America.

1991 was the year which saw the release of Capcom’s seminal Street Fighter II. The title sent shockwaves throughout the industry and ushered in a new era for arcade gaming. In the wake of its success, it seemed like every company wanted to create its own Street Fighter clone. This was a turning point for the Neo Geo.

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Art of Fighting was one of many fighting games created by SNK in the aftermath of Street Fighter II, and its large sprites and visible character damage was a true showcase of the hardware.

SNK wasn’t different from those other companies and got to work on its own fighting game. SNK’s offering, Fatal Fury, was released the same year, and it was notable for a key reason. The game was created by former Irem and Capcom designer Takashi Nishiyama, who was the creator of the original Street Fighter. Fatal Fury was flawed, with some clunky controls and only three playable characters, but the core gameplay was solid and it gave SNK renewed vigour. The concept of jumping between the foreground and background was also novel and added another layer of depth to the combat. This was followed by Art of Fighter in 1992, which made heavy use of scaling to allow the camera to zoom in and out of the action. The gameplay was more methodical than Fatal Fury, requiring precise timing and the inclusion of a stamina bar stopped the continual use of special moves. It was also the first fighting game with a super move, and characters show visible signs of damage with bruises and cuts to their face, so it was noteworthy in its own right.

Both Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting would receive a string of sequels, culminating in the fantastic Garou: Mark of the Wolves, but SNKs most noteworthy fighting games were still to come. The first of these launched in 1993. Samurai Shodown moved away from the present-day bare-knuckle brawler setting and brought the player into a fictional interpretation of feudal Japan. The characters were Samurais, Knights, Ninjas and other such figures, fighting to the death with weapons. The gameplay was slower and more precise, like Art of Fighting, but was much more risk-reward. The strongest attacks would inflict large amounts of damage, so there was a fine balance between offence and defence. One wrong move could be your downfall, but it could also reward you with a swift victory.

The following year SNK released the debut title in the most famous Neo Geo franchise of them all. The King of Fighters ’94. A crossover of Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, it also included a variety of fighters from past SNK hits. It introduced many new characters of its own, some of which became firm fan favourites. The King of Fighters was advertised as a “dream match” in Japan. It was refined. It was simple to pick up and play, yet challenging to master. It also mixed things up, offering teams of characters for all-out 3-on-3 battles. Teams were made up of set characters, although later games in the franchise allowed the player to select three characters of their choosing. Much like Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting both Samurai Shodown and the King of Fighters saw many sequels, with Samurai Shodown II and The King of Fighters ’98 receiving much acclaimed. They are regarded as two of the finest 2D fighting games ever released.

While the majority of early Neo Geo titles were action or sports titles, the release of Fatal Fury slowly turned the SNK into the ultimate fighting game system. These fighting games would go on to define the legacy of the Neo Geo and made SNK and Capcom fierce rivals in the mid to late 90s. These fighting games often dominate discussions, and many forget just how varied the library was.

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Neo Turf Masters is often cited as one of the best arcade sports titles of all time.

Another key genre for the Neo Geo was sports titles. Top Player’s Golf was just the beginning. One of SNK’s best console games was Baseball Stars for the NES, and the franchise was brought to the Neo Geo starting with Baseball Stars Professional 1990, followed by the much loved and vastly improved Baseball Stars 2 in 1992. The aforementioned League Bowling is a fan favourite. Windjammers was a novel take on the Pong formula which in recent years as grown in stature, with Retro Gamer magazine ranking it as one of the ten best Neo Geo games. The Super Sidekicks foursome gave football fans something to play, offering some of the best arcade football action available at the time. And no discussion of Neo Geo sports games is complete without mentioning the incredible Neo Turf Masters, which is one of the best sports games ever made.

The system was also home to other great titles, like the shoot ’em ups Last Resort, Pulstar, Blazing Star and Aero Fighters 2. The Sengoku games, Burning Fight and Robo Army offered something for beat ’em up fans. Japan saw a selection of Mahjong games and there was a variety of run and gun and racing titles. We also can’t forget Metal Slug. If The King of Fighters is the most famous Neo Geo franchise then Metal Slug is a close second. The side-scrolling, run and gun action is relentless. Anyone can pick it up and make it through the first stage, but mastering the game takes genuine skill. One hit deaths will be a roadblock for many, but the action is so satisfying that with each death you feel more determined to succeed. Metal Slug spawned four sequels for the Neo Geo alone.

Despite the high price point, SNK was confident in the software available. It had every right to be confident. But if the Neo Geo struggled out the gates in Japan then its performance in North America was even worse. The high price would forever plague the console. In Japan, it found enough of a niche that the games are still fairly common to find in local retro game stores, but in North America, the sales were so low that English language releases of many games command huge sums of money. It’s not uncommon to see four-figure prices on many games today, making the Neo Geo arguably the most expensive console to collect for.

The console was released in Europe, although in my research information on the European release has been difficult to find. Some of the most expensive and collectable games for the system were PAL releases, such as the infamous Kizuna Encounter, but the system sold even more poorly in Europe than it did in North America.

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SNK hoped than the cheaper Neo Geo CD would revitalise the hardware.

After a few years on the market, SNK looked at ways to try lower the production cost of the AES. The hardware was expensive to manufacturer, but the biggest problem for SNK was the high cost of manufacturing the cartridges. Even four years after it was released the system still hadn’t seen a price drop in North America, and the games were only getting even more expensive as the size of the cartridges continued to increase.

SNK brainstormed several ideas, and instead of redesigning the console, it decided to release an entirely new system which made use of CD-ROMs. Fittingly titled the Neo Geo CD, this new system wasn’t much cheaper than the AES, but the use of optical media allowed games to plummet in price. A game which was released for $200 on a cartridge was only $50 on CD. The Neo Geo CD also revived the traditional controller SNK had scrapped for the AES, another cost-saving move. The system launched in Japan and Europe in 1994 and SNK hoped it would generate higher sales than the more expensive alternative.

Despite selling its entire 25,000 launch day allocation in Japan, the system was a failure. The biggest problem was the long load times. We all know optical media takes time to load data, but the Neo Geo CD had only a single-speed optical drive at a time when other CD systems had double speed drives. It wasn’t uncommon for load times to be several minutes in length. On its own, this would be an issue, but with many of the fighting games, you could find load times of around twenty seconds just in between rounds. The change in format also meant that the Neo Geo CD was incompatible with AES games, so if you wanted to make the swap to the Neo Geo CD it would mean you had to rebuy all your games.

A revised version of the Neo Geo CD was released in Japan in 1995 called the Neo Geo CDZ which made load times quicker, but it was released in very limited quantities, and it was never released outside Japan. Today the CDZ is a rare and expensive collector’s item. The system didn’t launch in North America in any capacity until 1996, but by that point, it made little difference.

SNK carried on manufacturing Neo Geo hardware until 1997 when the MVS, AES and CD were finally discontinued to make way for SNK’s planned successor. That successor, the Hyper Neo Geo 64, was SNK’s first foray into 3D gaming, and it was designed to compete against a new generation of 3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter and Tekken. SNK also had plans for a home version, but unfortunately, it was a disaster. The system underperformed in no small part to the death of the arcade industry in North America and Europe, and only seven games were ever released for it. Only one of these games, Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition, was ever released outside the arcade and it was maligned by critics.

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Samurai Shodown V Special was the last game developed and released for the original Neo Geo hardware.

Even though the original Neo Geo hardware was discontinued SNK carried on releasing titles for the system well into the early 2000s. It had little choice. The Hyper 64 was a failure, but the company still knew it had hundreds of thousands of arcade machines and home consoles out in the wild, so it made financial sense. Some of the best games ever released for the Neo Geo, including the aftermentioned Garou: Mark of the Wolves and The King of Fighters ’98, were released during this period. While the hardware was now outdated SNK knew how to push it to its limits. I mentioned earlier that the largest Neo Geo cartridge ever released was 716 Mb, but when the system was first released SNK thought the maximum size it could create was 330 Mb. Their mastery of the hardware made them more than double that limit via clever use of bank switching, and late-life Neo Geo games look so impressive you could be fooled into thinking they were running on completely different hardware.

Eventually, the failure of the Hyper 64, combined with the death of the arcade scene outside Japan, did catch up with SNK. The founder, Eikichi Kawasaki, sold the company to Aruze in 2000, before leaving to form Playmore. Upon the bankruptcy of SNK Playmore purchased all the SNK name and all its properties, and carried on releasing new titles. These new titles were often made by companies founded by former SNK staff.

In 2003 Playmore changed its name to SNK Playmore, and the Neo Geo was finally put to rest with the release of Samurai Shodown V Special in 2004. The Neo Geo would become the longest supported arcade hardware in history, with a fourteen-year lifespan. The home console would also replicate this, and remains one of the longest supported consoles in history. When SNK Playmore released the final game for the AES it included a thank you note for all those who bought it, expressing gratitude for their continued support. It was a touching end to an era in gaming.

As of 2016, the company is again known officially as simply SNK, after Kawasaki changed Playmore’s trading name back to SNK.

About the Author: Widdowmaker

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